After agreeing to a deal Tuesday that will last the length of the playoffs, Tracy McGrady is a San Antonio Spur.
Now, the question of the hour: If the Rockets beat the Lakers on Wednesday to claim the West’s No. 7 seed and a first-round match against San Antonio, how many Houston fans will root against their team and instead cheer for the player whose jersey they wore through adolescence?
This is a valid inquiry. It would make sense for NBA teams to come with “subject-to-change” disclaimers. Rosters turn over at impossible-to-track rates, making it difficult for some to stomach a life spent rooting for the same franchise. The Rockets, for instance, have a core trio of players that fans didn’t give a hoot about until they landed with the team in the offseason.
To us, players aren’t just people; they represent memories. The reversible black-and-red jersey I donned for elementary-age basketball — Michael Jordan. The ill-advised fro I combed out before games in middle school — Ben Wallace. The stupid chalk clap we did in high school rec ball — LeBron James. And so now whenever I see the aging Jordan on television, or when I see that Wallace doesn’t even play anymore, or that LeBron is almost 30 (!), I am given a startling reminder of just how far back my memories can now trace. If a player can invoke a twinge of nostalgia, we care about him more than we ever could any team.
Take it in specific cases, imagining a simultaneous Denver Broncos and Texas Longhorns fan. Does the Broncos fan not at least feel good for Justin Tucker as he boots the game-winner in overtime to send the Ravens to the Super Bowl? You remember where you were when Tucker beat Texas A&M with his leg. Does the Dallas Cowboys fan not have an easier time swallowing a loss to the Redskins if it’s at the hands of Texas son Robert Griffin III? If you’re a Baylor fan, you remember how proud you were when he won the Heisman.
Inter-league examples of this dynamic are rare, but in the 2011 and 2012 Western Conference Finals a faction of non-diehard Mavericks and Spurs fans instead rooted for the hoops team of former-Longhorn Kevin Durant. Durant’s team, heaven forbid, calls Oklahoma home.
Something about McGrady makes him a sympathetic figure. He never won a playoff series (though his team did while he was injured), was beset by injury and later in his career was exposed as a premium scorer with little else to his game. But he was beloved in Houston.
“Tracy was the commercial player Houston was craving for — a branded player with a shoe deal and a scoring ability that embodied the wave of NBA superstar before LeBron James and Dwyane Wade proved that scoring isn’t everything,” said Sameer Bhuchar, former Daily Texan sports editor and lifelong Rockets fan. “Houston hadn’t had that type of player in a while, not in any sport.”
There’s not much of a question that the Houston fan who grew jaded with an unrecognizable team after connecting so well with McGrady will be pulling for the newest Spur if the series is tied 3-3 and T-Mac, hypothetically, has the ball in his hands with seconds remaining.
More compelling: the Houston fan who has stuck with the Rockets through all these years, but still remembers the very place he was when McGrady scored 13 points in 35 seconds (against the Spurs), slept with a T-Mac poster above his pillow, shouted “T-Mac!” instead of “Kobe!” on fallaway shots at the wastebasket, stayed up late staring at said poster above his pillow, wondering if McGrady would ever stay healthy, wondering why McGrady never became as good as they thought he would. Dammit, at one point this guy wanted to be Tracy McGrady.
And now the ball’s in T-Mac’s hands, with seconds left on the clock, and he’s staring James Harden down. My guess? This guy’s going to be cheering like it’s 2005.